We all know the feeling. You find a great item on sale and your heart beats a little faster. The rush of dopamine and other feel-good chemicals flood your brain. You feel like a winner. And you want that feeling again.
The way the human brain reacts to a great deal is very similar to the feeling associated with other addictions. Alcohol, drugs, gambling, and even food can all light up the reward centre of the brain. And that feeling is what drives people to feed the addiction.
Shopping and Compulsive Buying Disorder
Everyone gets a boost from a great buy. And that feeling is hard to resist even if you don’t have an associated addiction issue. Once we get an item to the cash register, most people can’t exercise the self-control necessary to stop the purchase.
However, those who chase that high, regardless of the consequences, may have compulsive buying disorder. This can include those who buy even when their personal debt payments outweigh their income, essentially spending money they can’t pay back.
Sales and Spontaneity
Responding to a sale is almost an instantaneous decision. As covered in a piece by the BBC, we make buying decisions in mere moments. Once we decide, our brain floods our system with feel-good chemicals, reinforcing the decision. And, once that happens, we rarely change our minds.
The thought processes are not dominated by rational thought. Rarely do we weigh the consequences of the buying decision. Instead, we allow emotional and subconscious thinking manage the choice for us.
Simply entering our favourite stores, online or offline, prepares us for a “rewarding” experience. The production of dopamine rises and we are motivated by the hunt. If a product engages us on an emotional level, our impulse to be rewarded makes it hard to say no.
So, we buy.
The Inevitable Crash
Even though we feel pretty good about making the purchase initially, the rewarding feeling wears off. Just like other addictions, the feel-good chemicals subside, and we’re left feeling guilty for indulging.
Often, we don’t feel the guilty after purchasing necessities. For example, purchasing a household staple, like butter or salt, doesn’t come with a downside. Most people understand that certain things are needed. Buying a basic version of a product required for daily living doesn’t generally lead to much guilt. Granted, it rarely comes with the high either.
The shoppers high normally involves us fulfilling wants and not needs. For example, buying the makings of a sensible dinner yields little results. If you decide to buy more extravagant ingredients or even go to a restaurant, you can get the high (and associated post-purchase low).
The low is unpleasant. And we don’t like feeling that way. The urge to get away from that bad feeling can lead you to chase the good feelings, resulting in more purchases. What gets bought is less important that the act of shopping and buying. Even looking forward to a shopping trip can be involved in the cycle, leading to a build-up of positive feelings that culminate at the point of purchase. And sales intensify those desires, making it harder to resist.
Break the Cycle
While you can’t stop your brain from producing these chemicals, you can be more aware of what is happening. Recognizing the effects of shopping on your brain can help you maintain control. Whether you use shopping as an escape from your daily problems or as a way to fuel excitement, understanding why shopping makes you feel a certain way gives you to awareness to make better choices.
Some people use a system to help avoid shopping on impulse or simply for the high, by not buying anything the first time they feel the desire. Instead, record the purchase in a notebook. Then, after a specified period of time (often one week to one month), you review the list and see if you still think you need to buy it.
Putting barriers to spontaneous spending can help eliminate the irrational thought processes and lessens the emotions involved in the choice. However, if you can’t seem to fight your compulsions, you may need the help of a mental health professional so that you can get to the root of your shopping urges. Addiction is a complex area. If your shopping is causing you or your family hardship, it is always best to seek out the help of a professional.